Tamil Nadu gets its billion-dollar bond
By D Suresh Kumar – COIMBATORE
Published: 06th Jan 2013 09:04:50 AM
He is not on the Forbes List of India’s top ten billionaires like the Ambanis, Sunil Mittal or Lakshmi Mittal. He does not own have an Antilla nor does he have holiday homes in Mayfair and St. Tropez, but lives in a modest single-storey, two-bedroom house in Dharapuram, a small town in Tirupur district of Tamil Nadu. He doesn’t own luxury yachts like Empress and Amevi, Bombardier and Boeing 747 private jets or a fleet of Bugattis and Lamborghinis. Yet 46-year-old T M Ramalingam is one of India’s richest men as income tax officials discovered when they raided his house and found five $ 1 billion United States Treasury Bonds, or T-Bonds, valued at Rs 27,000-odd crore at the current exchange rate—roughly one-seventh of India’s defence budget and almost twice the budgetary allocation for higher education. It could be the biggest case of fraud, or the greatest financial mystery in Independent India. But when The Sunday Standard spoke to him, Ramalingam denied it was ill-gotten wealth, but said he could not reveal any more since investigations were on.
Income tax officers, who grilled Ramalingam, were left confused by contradictory statements given by him during an interrogation that lasted over nine hours on Friday in Chennai. While initially the man had led them to believe that the seized documents were US Treasury Bonds, during interrogation the officers learnt that what they had confiscated were Bills of Exchange with a face value of $5 billion, which Ramalingam had apparently purchased from a middleman in Brazil. “He had exchanged gold bonds for the Bills of Exchange from a man in Brazil. But he has given contradictory versions regarding his source of income,” Additional Director General of Income Tax (Investigations) S Murli Mohan said.
Ramalingam had appeared before the income tax authorities accompanied by his lawyer Illango. However, the lawyer was not allowed to be present during the interrogation. “We are still not sure about the genuineness of these Bills of Exchange. The documents are being verified with the US authorities through the Union government. The truth will be out next week,” Mohan added.
Tirupur, the textile hub of south India, is home to numerous exporters who earn in dollars and pounds. Therefore, banks in the district do not blink at foreign exchange dealings worth crores. But their eyes popped when Ramalingam—described as a dealer in financial securities, copra and groundnuts—was raided by taxmen on New Year’s eve. He had reportedly gone to the Barclays Bank branch in Tirupur to liquidate the T-Bonds, which were due to expire in 2013, when bank staff grew suspicious and alerted the IT Department.
“Going by his humble looks and the fact that he was not a known man in business, social or political circles, we were left wide-jawed by the find. He had not stocked any cash at his home. Therefore, our first reaction was to suspect whether the T-Bonds were fakes. Indian citizens rarely hold on to T-Bonds, which are issued with a maturity period ranging from 20 to 30 years,” says an officer of the Income Tax (Investigations) Department who was a member of the raiding team. The bonds have now been sent to the Financial Intelligence Unit in New Delhi for a comprehensive verification.
Ramalingam’s neighbours are a surprised lot. “We rarely see even a beat constable in our locality. When a posse of policemen landed here we thought there must be some VVIP movement. But only through the media did we learn that they were giving protection to a IT raiding team,” said a coconut seller who plies his trade near Ramalingam’s house.